The Claim and the Cause

Onondagas say their rights empower the fight for a clean environment

Sunday, March 13, 2005

By Sidney Hill

Behind the Salt Museum on the Onondaga Lake waterfront, a large sign trumpets "A Changing Fishery." The sign notes that many years ago, my people, the Onondaga, as well as people of European descent who were settling in Central New York, caught and ate the fish that lived in the lake. Then, with the advent of industry, the lake became too polluted and the fish became too toxic to eat. Now, the lake has become somewhat cleaner - but the fish that we catch still cannot be eaten.

Even in the "cleanest" of our lakes, you can only eat one fish meal per month, as eating more would be too dangerous.

People still live on the shores of Onondaga Lake, not quite as my people once lived, though the homes are still modest and the families still work hard to make ends meet. But industrial plants and their toxic pollution intermingle too frequently with those who reside and work in the area. For example, on the opposite side of the lake, a school in Solvay sits facing the large exhaust pipes of the recycling plant. Other plants dot the nearby landscape. What exactly are the children breathing in?

The Onondaga Nation has filed suit to reclaim our rights to our ancestral territories. The legal arguments are well known at this point - New York state seized our land through agreements that were illegal according to federal law. But the concept of land rights and what that includes - and does not include - is somewhat foreign to contemporary society.

We intend to use our rights to this land as a legal and moral force for the environment and the Earth - to clean up polluted areas and protect those areas not yet defiled for generations to come.

Our land rights action encompasses a large swath of Central New York, from north of Watertown to south of Binghamton. In asserting our rights, however, we will not seek to evict anyone or disturb anyone now living on our territory. We want to live in peace with our neighbors, and our hearts reach out to the students of that school in Solvay and their parents. With our lawsuit, we can help fight to protect them.

Our Nation looks at the ecological disaster of Onondaga Lake, the most polluted in North America, and we weep. A century of degradation caused by callous corporations and indifferent government officials has transformed the lake, the center of Onondaga way of life and culture, into a toxic pool hostile to fish, wildlife and humans alike.

Within the waters and sediments of the lake, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found dangerous levels of mercury, pesticides, creosote, polycyclic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, lead, cobalt, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The proposed "clean-up" of this toxic soup was drawn up without our input (another violation of federal law) and is completely inadequate. This proposal will leave far too much of these toxins in the lake sediment and it fails to account for the pollution that continues to drain into the lake from more than a dozen different environmental hazards.

Left alone or subjected to sham or token clean-up efforts, the lake will never regain its health and ecological balance. Further, neither Honeywell, the corporation now responsible for much of this pollution, nor the state can predict what impact this proposed plan will have on mercury levels in the fish tissue or in the lake water.

Corporations should not dump their waste and then take away their jobs once the land has been sufficiently defiled. Central New York was once filled with amazing amounts of natural beauty, and the Onondaga want to reclaim that beauty for everyone. It is our calling, and it is our right.

Sidney Hill is tadodaho (spiritual leader) of the Onondaga Nation. (c) 2005 The Post-Standard. Used with permission.